What Khashoggi killing means for US-Saudi nuclear power policy

What Khashoggi killing means for US-Saudi nuclear power policy
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Recent developments around the death of Jamal Khashoggi have prompted a bipartisan response calling for President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE to break off talks with Saudi Arabia over a potential U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement. The claim being that Saudi Arabia’s actions “raise serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decision-makers in Saudi Arabia.”

The U.S. is facing strong competition from China, Russia, South Korea and France for the engineering, procurement and construction of the first two of 16 planned reactors in Saudi Arabia. Consequently, a disruption in negotiations could quell U.S. hopes of establishing a behind-the-fence presence in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear enterprise, thus limiting American influence in the development of Saudi Arabia’s overall nuclear culture.

There’s little argument that the issue of a nuclear program in Saudi Arabia is complex and that the death of Khashoggi presents the U.S. with a diplomatic challenge. But such has been the challenge to U.S. leaders from the beginning.

International control of atomic energy, a national security imperative initiated in the Democratic administration of President Truman, was a critical foreign policy objective in the Republican administration of President Eisenhower. So critical, that on November 11, 1952, only seven days after his election, President-elect Eisenhower held a briefing with Roy Snapp, Secretary of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The issue was the disposition of America’s atomic energy program and the context was a redrawn geopolitical map of Europe and Asia where the Soviet Union had emerged as a global power with nuclear aspirations and the technological capabilities to act on those aspirations. Ironically, this briefing was held at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia where only 41 miles away sits Plant Vogtle — the site of the only nuclear construction project in America today.

The world was changing in real time and America was compelled to act on the front end of the oncoming atomic energy era rather than wait to respond on the back end of an issue that was becoming a strategic objective within the human endeavor — technologically, militarily and geopolitically. 

In the formative years of U.S. nuclear power policy, there was a bipartisan sense of urgency that America must establish itself as the global leader in nuclear science, engineering and technology. The rationale being that America needed to engage competently and authoritatively in an international system of control in order to shape the culture of norms and standards for the global nuclear enterprise.

This bipartisan sense of urgency was palpable, as reflected in the 1956 political platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties as they competed to be the champion of the U.S. nuclear enterprise.

The Republican Party pledged “continuous, vigorous development of Atomic Energy: for the defense of our own country and to deter aggression, and for the promotion of world peace and the enhancement of our knowledge of basic science and its application to industry, agriculture and the healing arts…so as to fortify the security of the free nations and to further the prosperity and progress of all people everywhere.”

The Democratic Party proclaimed that “by the end of the Truman Administration, the pre-eminence of the United States in the nuclear field was clearly established, and we were on the threshold of large-scale development of industrial nuclear energy at home and as an instrument of world peace.” It lamented that the U.S. was “lagging instead of leading in the world race for nuclear power, international prestige and world markets.”

Republicans and Democrats may have engaged in a political sparring match over which party was best-suited to champion America’s nuclear endeavor, but they were on the same side of the real world competition to establish the U.S. as the global leader in atomic energy.

Today, bipartisan calls for a U.S. response to Saudi Arabia are understandable and it isn’t argued here that the U.S. should be muted in that response. But when considering what that response might include, it should remain a central bipartisan point that a U.S.-Saudi nuclear collaboration is a long-term national security issue with incalculable strategic value, not merely a near-term transaction with finite financial value.

The Saudi Arabia civilian nuclear issue has national security implications, but those implications won’t be resolved with a U.S. disengagement from negotiations. Moreover, a U.S. disengagement translates into a vacancy that will be filled by a country offering a viable option. Saudi Arabia will have a civilian nuclear program with or without the U.S., and it is unclear what leverage, if any, the U.S. could apply by breaking off talks.

The International Energy Agency predicts that China and India will account for 91 percent of the increase in nuclear output from 2016 to 2040, with the rest of the world accounting for the remaining 9 percent. While it can only be posed hypothetically, it’s easy to imagine Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and their nuclear policy strategists, being stunned to see America not only missing from among the global leaders in nuclear energy, but lumped in as a “Rest of World” country.

Given that today’s world is more complex than was theirs, they likely would see this as an issue that called for renewed bipartisanship and urgency in U.S. nuclear power policy — including talks with Saudi Arabia.

David Gattie is an associate professor of engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and a resident fellow in the University of Georgia’s Center for International Trade and Security. Prior to UGA, he worked 14 years in private industry as an energy services engineer and an environmental engineer. The opinion expressed here is his own.